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The power in a Hymn

by Sharon Simpson


Many churches have faced the “worship wars” – the battles of music preference. The battle has been so significant that generations break apart and create separate worship styles. My husband and I once visited a large church in California that had separate buildings on the same campus, each featuring various worship styles. Worshippers chose their preferred genre of music and experienced worship in that setting.

One building was like a warehouse – pitch black with coloured lights flashing around the walls. The band at the front was playing electric guitars and shaking their long locks while jumping up and down and all around. Next was a smaller coffee-style shop that had one worship leader singing mellow acoustic worship. We joined the traditional service that had a Hammond organ with an elderly woman playing hymns.

The effect of music on the brain
Music, no matter what the personal preference, has a synchronized effect on people’s brains. “Despite our idiosyncrasies in listening, the brain experiences music in a very consistent fashion across subjects,” says Daniel Abrams, postdoctoral researcher at Stanford University School of Medicine. His research shows that music activates brain regions that are involved in movement, planning, attention and memory. This means our brains are making meaning of the sounds, not simply processing the sound the way we do with background noise. Music can activate our brain’s memory and take us back to joyful and painful memories from our past.

Research may help us to understand why music has the power to elicit powerful responses from people who are living with dementia. When the familiar music is played, it activates a “tape” that plays in our mind, reminding us of a particular person or place. Often, it invokes mental pictures of the people and places who graced our lives at that time.
In 2012, an emotionally-compelling movie trailer was published on YouTube for a movie called Alive Inside. It shows the power of familiar music in the life of Henry, a man living with Alzheimers, who is at a stage in the disease where he no longer recognizes his daughter. Inert, depressed, unresponsive and unalive, Henry had lived in the nursing home for ten years and had become a very withdrawn individual. When a Recreation Therapist gives Henry an iPod containing his favourite music, he immediately lights up, his face assumes expression, his eyes are open wide and he begins to rock and move. He is completely animated and sings along.

The effect of the music doesn’t stop. When the headphones are taken off, Henry, who is normally mute is quite able to communicate.

Another incredible video that shows the power of music is a video of Gladys Wilson. She is living with dementia and is at the end stage of the disease. A former choir leader in her church, Gladys sits motionless in her wheelchair at the beginning of the video. Naomi Feil, founder of Validation Therapy, shares a breakthrough moment of communication with her in this video. She begins to sing “Jesus Loves Me”. As she sings, Gladys begins to pat along in time on the arm of her wheelchair. As the song moves along, Gladys begins to tap faster and faster – the way that a choir director would increase the tempo of a choir’s song. Naomi Feil begins to sing, “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands” and Gladys grabs her arm. The breakthrough happens when Naomi sings, “He’s got the mothers and the fathers” and Gladys sings the echo “In His Hands”. “Do you feel safe?” Naomi asks Gladys, “With Jesus and me?” Gladys responds, “Ya.”
Music forms pathways of memory in our brains and brings us the feeling of safety and security even when we can no longer express ourselves.

The value of hymns
So why are hymns so important to the elderly? More than 85 percent of Canadians, over 80 years of age have a Christian upbringing. The songs they learned in childhood are forever imprinted in their memory. Most of the songs they learned during their developing years were hymns.

Hymns are poems that entail the singing of theology. The central focus of a hymn is the words. It is a song that declares the truth to God and about God. The words proclaim a reaffirmation of the worshipper’s belief. They have often been penned in times of great suffering.

A friend of mine suffered a great loss recently. It was the culmination of months of process that resulted in a decision that was incredibly wounding and completely permanent. Lacking words of her own, she posted a hymn onto Facebook and said, “Finding strength here on this difficult day.” Written by a Swedish Lutheran pastor in 1865, this hymn is the expression of grief, trust and hope experienced by Karolina Sandell-Berg when her father was drowned after being thrown overboard when the ship they were on suddenly lurched.

“Day by day, and with each passing moment/ Strength I find to meet my trials here/ Trusting in my Father’s wise bestowment/ I’ve no cause for worry or for fear/ He, whose heart is kind beyond all measure/ Gives unto each day what He deems best/ Lovingly its part of pain and pleasure/ Mingling toil with peace and rest.” The song continues on, drawing the listener into the truth about the love of God, the presence of the Lord, the protection of God, the response of trust, the call for God’s help and the hope of eternal life in the promised land. It is a salve for the aching heart.
Hymns give seniors a meaningful opportunity to declare the truth about God and the truth about their own life regardless of their circumstances. Hymns evoke emotions and memories of circumstances when God was real, when God provided, sustained them, comforted and forgave them. Hymns are a way to express ongoing trust in the God that they know and love. Hymns are a reminder of the significant times that God has been present over the course of their lives.

I invite you to take the time to ask a senior for their favourite hymn and the memories that surround that hymn. There is no doubt that they will take you back to a time in their life when God was doing a work in their heart through His Spirit – and that is a journey worth taking, no matter what kind of music you prefer.

Sharon Simpson is the Director, Communications and Stakeholder Engagement at Menno Place, a seniors’ campus-of-care located in Abbotsford, BC –